While much has been written about the unsatisfactory position of graduate interns in Ireland and the JobBridge scheme, with deadlines fast approaching for summer internships this article will explore some of the rights and entitlements of undergraduate interns.

The first and most important thing to note is that there is no statutory definition of an intern in Irish legislation. This may be because there are countless different types of internships and experiences in many different fields that it may be impossible to offer one suitable definition. However, should a dispute arise surrounding workplace rights this can lead to a lack of clarity on what rights, if any, apply. This absence of codified guidelines means that terms of arrangement will vary from business to business, making it rather difficult for the unsuspecting intern to identify their various rights and duties.

What is helpful in clearing up this confusion is the fact that a private internship or work experience arrangement is not exempt from employment legislation. This means that taking all of the circumstances into consideration, a tribunal, or indeed a court, may find that an intern has in fact been treated as an employee and is deserving of the rights that accompany this working relationship.

While there is no express right to pay under Irish legislation, s.2 of the Minimum Wage Act 2000, providing for a contract of employment is rather broad in nature and could possibly be applied to include an internship. Factors determining a contract of employment such as control and labour will be considered and should a contract be found to exist other employment rights will also apply such as paid holidays or the right to sick leave.

Although the right to pay for an intern has not yet been tested in Ireland, we can turn to an English case to see how this might be done. In Vetta v London Dreams Motion Picture Ltd a case was brought under the English equivalent of the National Minimum Wage Act 2000. The tribunal in deciding that the intern should, in fact, be classed as an employee considered the circumstances of the case as a whole, specifically; the nature of the work undertaken, the expectations of the intern and the manner of recruitment.

Much commentary on unpaid internships describes it as ‘wrong’ or ‘unjust’, however, it is important to make the distinction between exploitation and experience. The exploitation of an undergraduate student in a work environment is no doubt wrong and unjust. On the other hand, the provision of valuable work experience and the opportunity to make connections and receive professional mentoring is beneficial to any undergraduate seeking to enter that particular profession. Only once the line from experience to exploitation has been crossed do problems arise.

There is another concern that these unpaid internships are only accessible to those who have the financial support to allow for working time unpaid. What is important to realise is that many programmes now include diversity schemes with application sections to note any particular access requirements, such as a need for accommodation or travel expenses. There are so many programmes available at the moment and if in doubt contact the internship programme coordinator with any potential concerns before applying.

What are some tips to make the most out of a professional internship then?

  • Before commencing, clarify expectations between intern and professional.
  • Engage with the designated supervisor. Ask questions, recommendations and for feedback at the end of the programme.
  • Make yourself aware of the codes of conduct and policies on appropriate workplace behaviour.
  • Note that the provisions of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005 apply to all workplaces.
  • Reach out and make professional connections. Almost all of the time professionals will be happy to offer some advice, they were students once too!
  • If you feel like your services or time is being exploited, speak up and contact your designated supervisor. Reiterate the terms of your internship, you are not an employee and without adequate compensation you should not be treated as one!

Louise Kennedy – Law Writer